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The AI Revolution Is Here – What Can Small Businesses Expect From It?

5 Mins read

While it may not come to mind when you hear the words “artificial intelligence,” anyone who ever worked with Microsoft Office 97 will remember the iconic mascot (and assistant) Clippy. Believe it or not, this little animated friend was AI-based, popping up in documents to offer help and suggestions for whatever a user was working on. From analyzing and providing optimal wording to recommending document formats, Clippy’s rudimentary AI underbelly laid the foundation for much of the AI that everyday people interact with today.

Today, OpenAI’s ChatGPT is trailblazing in much the same way that Clippy did all those years ago, normalizing the acceleration of transformative AI technology for the general public. Its current impact (and future implications) on business, creative content and interpersonal interaction is already widely felt, with many believing it to be as revolutionary a development as the dawn of the internet or the breakout of the industrial age.

From businesses to governmental bodies, most people are still not quite sure how to move forward from this current pit-stop along the AI journey. After all, ChatGPT and its peers like Google’s Bard, are not the final destination for artificial intelligence. They’re just the latest iteration in a long road of potential innovation that the industry is continuing to work through. That is why it’s vital to understand the uses and limitations of AI now, so that your business can be adaptable in the long run.

Remember the name: Large Language Models

The technology under the hood of ChatGPT belongs to a class of AI techniques known as generative modeling, which has roots dating back to the 1960s. It’s trained to mimic the complex statistical relationships that exist between words in a language, hence the technical name of Large Language Models or LLMs. Using these learned statistical relationships, LLMs produce responses to a very wide range of questions and look like they could have been written by a human.

LLMs can communicate in plain English, write and revise text and write code. With these capabilities, ChatGPT unlocks new potential for small businesses to work faster, produce more and operate on a higher level than they could when solely relying on human labor. It can even open new pathways for entrepreneurial people that may have had certain roadblocks in the past, such as the ability to generate marketing material or boilerplate text for business owners less fluent in the dominant language of their market.

The Breakthrough Behind the Hype

If generative AI and LLMs are not a new concept, why the sudden zeitgeist? What makes ChatGPT noteworthy and exciting is not actually the underlying models themselves, but the simple (and free) ‘human accessible’ interface and the wide availability. You don’t have to be a tech wiz to open up the text box and get creative with the endless possibilities offered by ChatGPT. The approachable UI and simplicity of the learning curve makes ChatGPT incredibly easy to adopt on a wide scale, making the AI wildfire that it’s ignited a bit more understandable.

There’s Always a Catch

ChatGPT is not without its limitations, with inquisitive minds already finding cracks and imperfections with the technology. As with most new products, many aspects need further development and there are rough edges that need rounding off. Users, both for personal and business reasons, should also remember the golden rule of free digital services: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Data management and safety has been one of the larger callouts in the generative AI discussion recently, given that programs like ChatGPT retain whatever information you put into it and can regurgitate it for anyone else in the world seeking it out.

It’s unlikely that these kinds of generative AI platforms remain free long-term, though, and with more time and regulation will come better data practices from purveyors of generative AI tools.

The smorgasbord of real world applications that this technology already presents has been met with a wave of investment and hype from major tech industry players, which is a surefire path to a more robust and trustworthy finished product. How many of these budding applications will have a commercially viable business model after the dust settles? It will be something for any small business owner to keep their eye on over the next year or so.

How can small business owners leverage ChatGPT today?

For now, ChatGPT is mostly finding its place as a writing and content creation assistant, especially for those who need a jumpstart in their creative process or who need to generate a large volume of generic text for business purposes. It’s likely that the next year will bring a surge of new applications that build on this foundation and find new use cases for the masses. To help filter out the noise and optimize their AI toolkit of the future, small businesses should approach ChatGPT and generative AI overall in the following ways:

1. Experiment mindfully

It doesn’t hurt to experiment with AI while in its early stages, but be sure to do so responsibly. Building upon some of the data concerns mentioned previously, copyright risks can come into play for businesses that use ChatGPT directly for public-facing materials, as the language it pulls could be coming from other branded or protected content. Be sure to do your due diligence with any content drawn from ChatGPT before sharing it. Adding personal elements to generated text also helps to make it unique and prevent an over-reliance on AI-generated content.

If handled with caution, first-hand experience with generative AI tools can help you get ahead of the curve and understand how AI will play in your business and the larger marketplace in the future.

2. Treat it like a tool

It’s wise to approach ChatGPT just like any other tool in your everyday business toolkit. For some small businesses, ChatGPT and other programs can fit seamlessly in existing workflows, layering into existing processes to eliminate redundancies and up the tempo. By using generative AI in conjunction with your broader arsenal, you can improve and streamline reporting, customer support and much more.

Remember not to force it, though. ChatGPT in its current state should not be relied upon in a vacuum, and it’s better to sit on the hype and wait for your opportunity rather than bending over backwards to make it work in your business’s infrastructure.

3. Think of your customers

ChatGPT has the potential to create new business models, jobs and workflows. Small businesses should consider their customers and take the time to understand just how AI technology fits into their relationship with consumers. For example, automating customer service and responding to customer requests are both processes that can benefit greatly from a human-AI hybrid approach today. This  means understanding not only how the technology could be used in chatbots, SMS and email for personalized messages, but how AI could free up your teams to focus on improving the customer experience.

The AI timeline is still in its infancy, and there’s no telling where it could lead us over the next several years and even decades.  But by keeping an open mind and adapting to the opportunities AI presents us with today, small business owners can get a leg up on the competition and unlock new pathways to growth. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible, keep a cautious approach and don’t be afraid to seek out guidance from an expert – do this and you’ll be better positioned to make AI an integral and valuable part of your business.

Dr Kendra Vant is the Executive General Manager of Data at Xero leading the strategy, design and delivery of AI products across the platform and all of the data thinking, infrastructure and engineering to make them possible. @dsdownunder; @Xero

AI stock image by Tada Images/Shutterstock

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